Ever since Tenzing Sangnyi was crowned the new Miss Tibet three weeks ago, the petite 21-year-old from Manali has had a rough ride. Instead of being elevated to a role model for Tibetan women, as she had hoped to be, she has been relentlessly trolled for not knowing the Tibetan language.

“How can someone without basic language capacity be allowed to represent the beauty of Tibetan women?” howled one online commentator. “It is just [a] big joke and completely wrong...”

A Facebook comment by a Dolma Sachu MeY-LuNg read: “Your broken and mixed language doesn’t take you anywhere... If you can’t... [meet] the expectation of Tibetan people, you... [are] not Miss Tibet...”

The barrage of criticism drove Sangnyi to plead with her critics to recognise that she is the child of Tibetan refugees, reared in an environment where she does not get to interact with Tibetan speakers. Her appeal didn’t convince everyone. It did, however, close the chapter on another controversy around the Miss Tibet pageant. Till next year, perhaps.

Miss Tibet 2016 Tenzing Sangnyi posing before the Tibetan flag.
Miss Tibet 2016 Tenzing Sangnyi posing before the Tibetan flag.

Th pageant, organised every year in McLeodGanj, the headquarters of the Tibetan government-in-exile, has been embroiled in controversy almost since it started in 2002.

When Lobsang Wangyal, a photojournalist from Dharamsala, first suggested organising Miss Tibet, he was disparaged by community elders. They said it would give a bad name to McleodGanj, a place regarded as sacred by Tibetans because of the presence of their spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

Besides, the very idea of young women wearing bikinis and sashaying about in western attire sounded preposterous to a people whose women traditionally wear an ankle-length skirt called a chuba and a full-sleeved blouse.

Wangyal went ahead with the pageant anyway.

He insists the show is “a platform for drawing attention to the brilliance of Tibetan culture and lifestyle, while at the same time highlighting the hardships faced by the members of the community”. It is “more than just a beauty pageant where pretty females flutter down the ramp”, he said. “It is a political act whereby we celebrate our identity, culture and our proud tradition, our way of asserting we are a nation.”

The three-day event has a swimsuit round on Day 1, followed by a talk and talent round on Day 2. Four rounds, where the contestants appear in casual attire, evening gown, traditional attire and then answer questions, complete the grand finale on the last day.

“Isn’t it funny that in a show which aims at crowning mdzangs-ma, or an intelligent, brave and virtuous woman, and goes by the clichéd tagline of beauty with brains, the brains part hardly gets any attention till the penultimate day?” asked Kay Sang, co-founder of Tibetan Feminist Collective. “And that too in the form of well-rehearsed answers to generic questions, which are the hallmark of all such pageants.”

The grand finale.
The grand finale.

Perhaps it was the stigma built around the event, but for four times in its brief history, the contest managed to get only a single entry. Every time, the lone entrant walked away with the crown.

In 2004 and 2007, the beauty queens had to withdraw from international pageants at the eleventh hour owing to Chinese intervention. They were asked to change their sashes from “Miss Tibet” to “Miss Tibet-China” and, when they refused, they were unceremoniously sent back. In 2011, Miss Tibet Tenzin Yangkyi smartly avoided a confrontation with the organisers by citing her Swiss citizenship and donning a “Miss Swiss Tibet” sash.

The year Yangkyi won, Wangyal, often called the “Tibetan Donald Trump”, was accused of fudging the results to favour his chosen one. He refuted those allegations at first, saying that the score sheets had been stolen, but later admitted that the non-Tibetan judge’s scores carried only 25% weightage. With more than 75% of the score resting on him, he had effectively decided the outcome.

In 2012, the event had to be cancelled due to heightened tension in Tibet.

The four finalists in chuba, the traditional Tibetan attire.
The four finalists in chuba, the traditional Tibetan attire.

At least this year’s pageant started on a better note.

The grand finale had four contestants: Dechen Wangmo from Mussorie, Tenzin Dawa from New York, Tenzin Deckyi from Bylakuppe in Karnataka, and Tenzin Sangnye from Manali. Social acceptance was more forthcoming after pictures of the women and the pony-tailed organiser seeking the Dalai Lama’s blessings were widely shared over social media.

On June 5, at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, a 2,000-strong audience cheered on, while Usha Dobhal, a holistic healing counsellor, and Sunita Singh, a yoga teacher, judged the four rounds. A silver crown for the winner sponsored by a local jeweller, a decent sound system sourced from neighbouring Pathankot and, above all, a cash prize of Rs 1 lakh sponsored by a Tibetan businessman in Delhi added to the frills.

Sangnyi won the crown, and then all hell broke loose. The conservatives among the Tibetan community who believe that a sound knowledge of Ü-Tsang should be a deciding factor in the event’s outcome shamed Sangnyi for her supposed handicap.

“I have been bullied online and made a mockery of,” she wrote on the Miss Tibet website and on her Facebook page. “Just like many of my Tibetan friends, I have had a tough journey being brought up in an environment where I did not have the chance to interact with Tibetan speakers.”

She added: “Having said that, I am confident that my shortcomings in language do not make me any less of a Tibetan. Instead of blaming me and my family, please encourage me in this wonderful journey to do something for my country.”

The four finalists and the organiser seek the Dalai Lama's blessings.
The four finalists and the organiser seek the Dalai Lama's blessings.

Several liberals in the community have come to Sangnyi’s defence, emphasising that most Tibetans under the age of 20 have grown up under diverse and difficult conditions. After their parents were forced to leave Tibet, some youngsters went to boarding schools, while others grew up in nations with no Tibetan settlements. It is therefore unfair to blame them for failing to preserve their language.

“Everywhere in the world, there is a threat to the mother tongue, as people migrate to countries under the influence of other majority language,” said Lhagyari Namgyal Dolkar, a member of the Tibetan parliament in exile. “So is the case with the precious Tibetan language in Tibet, India or anywhere across the world.”

A large number of Tibetan youth, both in their homeland under Chinese occupation and in the diaspora, cannot speak Tibetan. In such a case, is it right to impose a narrow view of the essence of being a Tibetan?

Jigme Ugen, a prominent activist based in the United States and a member of the Tibetan National Congress, agrees. “Let’s not fall into the white supremacist’s twisted narrative, where language is an indicator of authenticity,” he said.

“When one is willing to challenge their limitations to speak/read/write Tibetan, it is inspirational,” Ugen asserted. “That individual needs support and encouragement – and the entire community to be a teacher and a council.”

The crowning moment.
The crowning moment.